MotoGP: Australian Grand Prix Wrap-Up

Crash! Boom! Bang! Valentino Rossi wins Down Under.

Valentino Rossi leads Jorge Lorenzo race action from Phillip Island

Marc Marquez did not need to win, so he didn't. While leading by four seconds, he crashed out on lap 18. Valentino Rossi, able to win, therefore had to, catching Jorge Lorenzo just as the latter's soft front tire stepped down. Cal Crutchlow, mysteriously, suddenly himself again this weekend on the factory Ducati, found himself second, between Rossi and Lorenzo. On the last lap, Crutchlow did what Marquez had done: He eased up, his front tire cooled ever so slightly, and the moves that had worked lap after lap quit working, and he was down. Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Iannone made contact, putting Pedrosa's Honda out. It was a rare day, a Yamaha one, two and, three, with Bradley Smith third.

Phillip Island was a crash fest brought on by changing, unpredictable conditions. First and always, Phillip Island is in the sea, where all is windy and cool. Second, last year Bridgestone had a tire calamity and wanted no repeat. They brought all-new rubber with instructions that it was to be inflated to unusually high pressures that limited footprint area. Why? Last year the track was repaved, creating new grip and abrasion that took the engineers by surprise. Heat destroys tires, and heat comes from flex. The more tires are inflated, the less they flex and the cooler they run. All well and good, but these new tires forced all teams to come up with new compatible setups, so there was a democracy of ignorance. Pole position would be half a second slower than last year’s lap time.

“It was a race,” Marquez said, “where there were many crashes and almost all happened the same way—the front wheel locking up.”

Marc Marquez suffers first DNF of the season with crash

And maybe he was trying out things. We have noticed before that Marquez crashes as often as the next man in practice, when it's time to try things out. But generally, not in races. With the world title safely won, maybe he was trying a few things. And one of them didn't work.

Why did Rossi have to win by 10.8 seconds over Lorenzo? Isn’t there a sage saying about “winning at the lowest possible speed”? Rossi is the most experienced of all the men at the front, so I suspect he was maintaining the pace that would keep his tires hot enough to grip. Sunday afternoon was cooler, and the race didn’t start until 4 p.m.

Several riders tried the asymmetric front but found its hard side too hard. Would the soft front go the distance? Lorenzo would find out, and the answer was a qualified "no."

“A lot of riders crashed who could have finished in front of me,” he said. “With normal tires, I probably could have stayed with Marc and tried to win the race, but it was impossible. It happened to Valentino at Austin, it happened to me here. You just have to accept it.”

In a way, it’s like NASCAR, in which a yellow may be thrown at any time, for any reason. You just have to mind your own business, keep improving your position, and hope for good surprises rather than sliding in the gravel with your helmet’s chinbar doing an earth-scraper act.

Phillip Island race action shot

It's fascinating to see how Marquez's extreme Moto2 style is influencing and helping those who study it. The on-bike cameras tell the tale. Marquez approaches his apex and as he does so, you see him slide even further down, off the bike, his outside arm coming across the tank. Now the inside elbow is on the ground and his rate of turning is at maximum. This is the point of the "V" in what Crutchlow calls, "The V-shaped Honda line." At times, it's alarming, as though Marquez is losing consciousness and falling right off his bike. Then he twitches the bike upward onto more tire, for which he is already in position. Twing! He accelerates away.

Rossi is doing it, too, looking much the same if not as extreme. Lorenzo’s version is less extreme still, but in all cases the point is to lay down tire and be gone.

“I’m absolutely gutted with today’s result,” Crutchlow said. “We didn't deserve that. The first time I slowed throughout the whole race was on the last lap, and the front tire obviously cooled down. I chose the asymmetrical and this was always the risk that we took. It was just a shame that the only mistake I made was slowing down a bit and not carrying on pushing for the rest of the lap.”

Live and learn. Rossi has.

race action from the Australian Grand Prix width=

In qualifying, everything looked pretty normal, for Marquez summoned himself and set pole. At the end, there were 11 riders within three quarters of a second. Riders were smacking their foreheads with the knowledge that avoiding a 0.2-second mistake could have put them on the front row.

Not everyone could get on pace with the all-new tires. “All the weekend,” Stefan Bradl said, “we struggled with the tire situation and could not find our standard pace.” He dropped back when Pedrosa and Iannone touched, then made a mistake that put his front tire in contact with Aleix Espargaro’s bike. Both were out.

Might Lorenzo have done better with the asymmetric front? Goodyear made a mistake before Daytona in 1979, producing a “tire of cement” in the urgency of avoiding blistering. Bridgestone’s asymmetric front may be a parallel experience, made to avoid the previous year’s problems.

“The temperature had changed considerably compared to yesterday,” Hiroshi Aoyama said, “and also the conditions of the track, so the race was tough. Some riders opted for the hard front tire, but we suffered a crash on Friday, and yesterday we focused on getting the most out of the softer front compound. I think it was a very good decision to start the race with the soft front tire.”

Valentino Rossi celebrates on the podium

In recent races, Marquez has hung back, letting front runners toast their tires, then moving up with the inevitability of an advancing glacier. “Today, because I had no pressure on me,” he said, “I tried a different approach, pushing hard from the start to try to open the largest gap possible. We were having a good race, right up until the crash. It was a pity that I went down at a time that I was not riding on the limit or faster than the lap before. It is better that this happened now, so that I gain experience for next year. You don’t always have the opportunity to try things out.”

Not riding on the limit? There’s the nub. Bridgestone came to prominence in this game by taking an approach opposite to that of Michelin. While Michelin switched tires if the temperature changed five degrees, Bridgestone, being too far from most tracks to fly in “countermeasure tires” overnight, made tires whose wide operating range would cover changing conditions. At Phillip Island, everything conspired to push tires to cold end of their range, where only continuous hard riding could keep them working. Valentino Rossi uniquely understood that.

Andrea Iannone.

Herve Poncharal and Guy Coulon.

Chris Vermeulen and Casey Stoner.

Nicky Hayden.

Pol Espargaro.

First lap action.

Andrea Dovizioso, Aleix Espargaro, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith.

Marc Marquez chased by Jorge Lorenzo.

Phillip Island is a beautiful setting for a race.

Marc Marquez suffered his first DNF of the season.

Three Ducatis, two Hondas and a Yamaha.

Valentino Rossi leads Jorge Lorenzo.

Rossi has two wins this season.

Yamaha swept the podium at Phillip Island.

Track invasion.

Australian MotoGP fans.